Lords reform will strengthen Parliament as a whole: an MP's call to the Commons

A Conservative MP urges her fellow parliamentarians not to resist reform to the upper House for fear that it will diminish the powers of the Commons, but to see it as a step towards strengthening Parliament as a whole and wresting power from the Executive
Laura Sandys
4 July 2011

In this speech to the Commons, Conservative MP Laura Sandys calls on her fellow parliamentarians to back reform of the upper House, as a step towards strengthening the powers of Parliament as a whole, and ensuring greater scrutiny of Government. It is the first piece in a wide-ranging OurKingdom discussion on the role of the upper House, its relationship to the Commons, and the case for reform. 

It is a great honour to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), and I agree with much of what she said.

Obviously Parliament is not just this House, but it appears that this House, the legitimate House, is the House that lacks confidence in itself. The big fear is that giving more legitimacy to the House of Lords will diminish powers here, but the reforms that we are discussing, which will mean greater legitimacy for the other place, give us an opportunity collectively to hold the Government to greater account: to examine, cajole, petition and more effectively, not less effectively, ensure that there is greater scrutiny of Government. We need to claim back more powers collectively, and with a legitimate other place we can add to Parliament’s powers without any erosion of the powers in this Chamber.

It is not a zero sum game. If we have a stronger and more representative secondary Chamber, this place will not be diminished. Not only is it defeatist to think that we might be diminished, but such thinking does not reflect the history or tradition of Parliament. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) so eloquently observed, Parliament is here to take power away from the Executive. That is why it was created, and one of my ancestors spent a bit of time in the Tower of London as a result.

The proposed reform would also remedy a long-standing sore at the heart of our Parliament: the power of patronage. Since the inception of Parliament, the main thread linking generation to generation in this Chamber has been the fight against patronage. There is nothing more invidious than the patronage that accompanies the bestowal of membership of the House of Lords. It is much worse than the system of hereditary peers, it is much more open to questionable donations, and it allows Members of Parliament to be moved from this place to make way for high-fliers. In my view that system is not tolerable, and should have been reformed decades ago.

Nevertheless, I am not entirely uncritical of these proposals, but we need to think about the name that we give to the new version of the upper House. It must be defined as the junior Chamber: it must be seen not as upper or superior but as secondary, and, as many Members have suggested, the role of that secondary Chamber must be understood in relation to constituency MPs. We must decouple the issue of membership from that of honours. Sitting in a secondary Chamber is a job of work, not a fast track to aggrandisement.

There are two more fundamental issues with which the Committee’s consultation must deal. If we are to strengthen Parliament, we need more, not less, scrutiny of long-term planning by Government. I think that 15 years is an excellent term during which to examine a Government’s strategic policies, rather than examining their immediate legislation as we do. Most fundamentally, the secondary Chamber must not be able to initiate legislation. It should be able to petition Members of this House to introduce legislation, but it must not initiate it by means of private Members’ Bills, ten-minute rule Bills or any other mechanism.

This is one Parliament with two Chambers, one of which has its hands tied behind its back. We need to release it from its lack of legitimacy. Let us worry less about powers moving between the two Chambers, and spend more time thinking about the overall power that both Houses of Parliament should wrest back from the Executive.

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